What Lies Beneath 

Some reminders that our water is precious, and vulnerable

Forgive my personal bias, but I’ve always found it preferable when I can’t see the bottom of a river. There’s a certain mystique to a body of water that doesn’t divulge all its secrets at first glance but hoards the light in its murky darkness, nudging your mind into the creative exercise of imagining what mysteries lie beneath.

Which is why it’s so disconcerting lately to cross the Higgins Avenue Bridge and see little more than algae, rocks and the odd fish gulping for oxygen in the tepid waters below. The illusion of the river’s immutability is nearly shattered as I watch a handful of teenagers wade knee-deep from one side to the other, a stark reminder of the severity of the drought that brought us the worst fire season in more than 50 years.

And yet, one would hardly suspect from all the lawn sprinklers, car-wash fundraisers and spongy, green turf at Dornblaser Field that Missoula is one of 40 Montana counties now under a “severe” drought designation. Apart from the usual odd/even day watering restriction permitted 6-11 a.m. and 5-10 p.m.—imposed by Mountain Water Co. less as a water conservation measure than to keep water pressure manageable for the city fire department—no other water restrictions have been imposed. In fact, the city is actively encouraging people to water their property as much as possible since, as Missoula Fire Chief Bob Deeds points out, “green, survivable space is key to making sure your property is safe.”

This seeming paradox, of course, is explained by one of Missoula’s most precious commodities, an aquifer whose water-level varies little more than a foot or two even in the worst of drought years and is still capable of supplying three to four times the amount of water it currently delivers. Says Mountain Water’s Arvid Miller, “The river would have to dry up completely to affect the aquifer. I wouldn’t say Missoula’s water supply is infinite, but compared to some places it is.”

Which is not to say that Mountain Water is encouraging wasteful, excessive or indiscriminate water use. After all, the more they pump, the more electricity is used and the more expensive water becomes. And while Missoula may seem to enjoy a limitless supply, threats to our aquifer are all around us, a fact worth taking notice of as we witness firsthand how vital it is to our survival—and how easily it could slip away.

Lowest water level recorded in 67 years at a Blackfoot River monitoring station near Bonner: 355 cubic feet/second. Water level at that same monitoring station recorded this week: 500 cubic feet/second.
Area covered by the arsenic “plume” under Milltown Reservoir: 110 acres. How much of that plume extends beyond the boundaries of the reservoir: 1/5 Amount of arsenic that flows into the Milltown groundwater system each year: 19 tons
Percentage of water flow that the Missoula Valley aquifer receives from the Milltown to Hellgate Aquifer: 22
State water quality standards for copper concentrations, in parts per billion: 18
Concentration of copper in the Clark Fork River after a 1996 ice jam on the Blackfoot River forced an emergency drawdown of the reservoir, in parts per billion: 770
Depth to which all of downtown Missoula could be buried by the toxic sediment “stored” behind Milltown Dam: 100 feet
Number of years the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency extended the application renewal deadline for Milltown Dam: 2
Amount of time the Salem, Ore., water supply was rendered unusable in 1996 due to siltation caused by runoff from clearcut hillsides: one month Amount of water that can be contaminated beyond federal standards by one gallon of perchloroethylene, a solvent and degreaser used in dry cleaning and automotive repair: 150 million gallons
Maximum allowable nitrate levels in drinking water in the European Economic Community: 5.6 milligrams/liter (mg/l)
Maximum allowable nitrate levels in Germany and South Africa: 4.4 mg/l
Maximum allowable nitrate levels in the United States: 10 mg/l
Percentage of homes in lower Linda Vista subdivision in southwest Missoula whose water has exceeded federal nitrate standards: 10
Percentage of homes and businesses in the Missoula Valley that use septic systems as opposed to the city sewer system: 40
Amount of nitrates discharged into the groundwater from those systems annually: 52,378 lbs.
Amount of money committed by Smurfit-Stone Container and the cities of Butte, Deer Lodge and Missoula to reduce nitrate and other nutrient loading into the Clark Fork River: $60 million.
Projected reduction of nutrients in the Clark Fork from that effort: 12-15 percent
Amount of those nutrients that would wind up back into the river if the Montana Department of Environmental Quality permits the Rock Creek Mine: 1/2. #

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